From Baku to Batumi, Indian traveller hits the unexplored trail

Tashkent
Tashkent

Summary

  • Many Indians, looking for a short trip or a quick ski holiday for their upcoming summer break, are choosing to go to these places instead of enduring a long wait for a Schengen visa for Europe

NEW DELHI : Baku. Khinaliq. Batumi. Tbilisi. Gudauri. Heard of them? No? Well, the first two cities are in Azerbaijan, and the next three in Georgia, both part of the erstwhile Soviet Union, and now independent countries with exotic fare for the international tourist.

And Indians are taking note. Travel portal Thomas Cook, for instance, has seen demand for Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan sectors increase 300-500% versus pre-pandemic levels for its business, said Rajeev Kale, president and country head for holidays, MICE, visa at Thomas Cook (India) Limited. Other agencies, too, report similar eye-popping numbers.

Many Indians, looking for a short trip or a quick ski holiday for their upcoming summer break, are choosing to go to these places instead of enduring a long wait for a Schengen visa for Europe, say travel planners. Short, direct flights from India, inexpensive hotel tariffs (even the luxury hotels are cheaper than in India) and the fact that such places are less explored, are turning out to be big magnets. Of course, traditional Europe tours have not lost their charm either.

For Georgia, India is a top 10 country by international visitors, accounting for about 100,000 travellers annually. This figure has grown 74% from before the pandemic in 2019, per the country's official tourism statistics. Similarly, India is the fourth most important market for Azerbaijan, accounting for 33,600 travellers a quarter or about 130,000 annually, up 258% from 2019 when comparing January-March 2024 to the same period that year, according to the official data of the tourism body.

Shivaz Rai, non-executive director at visa processing agency DUDigital Global, said the demand is quite high for visas. While he did not share exact figures, he said Uzbekistan saw 200% growth in Indian visitors in 2023 compared to the previous year. Azerbaijan saw 1.9 times increase in Indian tourists during the same period. And Georgia is expecting to see around 50% growth in 2024. 

“Last year, we inked a deal with the Georgian embassy in India. We've observed a 15% surge in growth for this quarter—January to March—which has seen a significant acceleration as the season kicks off, with heightened interest from large groups, when compared to that of previous quarter," he said.

Radhika Khanijo, founder and travel designer at Delhi-based Welgrow Travel, said it was only in 2023 that her company began to sell these destinations; there was no demand for them before the pandemic.

“The draw for most of our HNI travellers is that they have already been to Singapore, Bali, Bangkok, etc., and these locations are ideal for short celebrations over 3-4 nights because of the direct air connectivity," she said. “Some of them work out to be lower in cost than travelling to a high-end hotel in India. Most of these locations also have luxury hotels chains like the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton and because of online visas or quick visas, these trips can be planned quite quickly."

Take this group of HNIs from Delhi, which is getting ready for a short four-night stag trip to Baku this month. Fourteen rooms have been booked in the plush Ritz Carlton hotel for a cheaper-than-India $175 a night or approximately 15,000. The itinerary is for a small birthday celebration. 

Another small group in Delhi, which returned from Baku last month, had no particular agenda. “We wanted to just have a quick friends trip to take a break from work," said Nipun Singh, 30, an entrepreneur who runs a clothing startup. "The cost was similar to if we had taken a trip within India and stayed at a nice hotel here. This way we got to see a new country."

Meanwhile, online travel agency Yatra has witnessed an increase in queries to these markets in the range of 20-25% and a year-on-year increase in bookings of 10-15%. On the platform, travellers typically spend 1-1.2 lakh for a package to Croatia, about 60,000 to Kazakhstan, and approximately 40,000 to Chiang Mai (in Thailand). Croatia's appeal lies in its coastline and medieval towns, made more attractive by an easier visa process compared to Schengen countries, a company spokesperson told Mint.

For MakeMyTrip, another online travel agency, the growth is similar. Some of these destinations have grown more than fourfold over their pre-covid booking numbers.

However, Saujanya Shrivastava, chief operating officer of flights, holidays and GCC at the online travel agency, said while these destinations are part of the natural progression of travel location choices, they are not alternatives to the traditional European travel, which continues to remain as popular. This becomes clear when they look at the cohorts of travellers booking through them. “It is the same category of travellers—couples, families, and larger groups between 20 and 40 years—that are frequenting (both) the traditional European locations and emerging destinations," he said.

Another nuance from MakeMyTrip is that a quarter of all Indian travellers on its platform are now taking more than three trips annually, according to Shrivastava. This means many of them are now taking more than one international trip every year, leading to the rise in popularity of these destinations as accessible alternatives to traditional Schengen destinations such as France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, among others.

Within the larger travel context, the interest in Indian tourists from these countries makes sense. The travel industry is taking note of the booming Indian outbound market. A report by business advisory Nangia Andersen titled “Outbound Tourism in India" predicts a surge in Indian travellers at 11.4% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2023 and 2032, with the market reaching a value of $44.8 billion by 2032. In 2022, the market size was $15.163 billion.

The report also highlights the increasing travel appetite of Indians. Before the pandemic, in 2019, around 27 million Indians travelled abroad. While travel was impacted in the intervening years, the report reflected a strong recovery in 2023, with 18 million Indians vacationing overseas according to data from the ministry of home affairs. These figures paint a promising picture for the future of Indian outbound tourism.

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